Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Role Morality

Role morality is the notion that people sometimes fail to live up to their own ethical standards because they see themselves as playing a certain role that excuses them from those standards.

For example, say a person views herself as a loyal employee of a company. In that role, she might act unethically to benefit her employer in ways that she would never do to help herself. To paraphrase researcher Keith Levitt, the same person may make a completely different decision based on what hat – or occupational role – she may be wearing at the time, often without even realizing it.

In one study people were asked to judge the morality of a company selling a drug that caused unnecessary deaths when its competitors’ drugs did not. 97% of people concluded that it would be unethical to sell the drug. Then, the researchers placed different people into groups, and asked each group to assume the role of the company’s directors. Acting as directors, every one of the 57 groups decided to sell the drug. They framed the issue as a business decision in dollars-and-cents terms. They ignored the harmful impact their decision would have on others.

So, ethical behavior requires maintaining the same moral standards regardless of the roles we play at home, at work, or in society.

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Moral Myopia

Moral myopia refers to the inability to see ethical issues clearly.

The term, coined by Minette Drumwright and Patrick Murphy, describes what happens when we do not recognize the moral implications of a problem or we have a distorted moral vision. An extreme version of moral myopia is called moral blindness.

For example, people may become so focused on other aspects of a situation, like pleasing their professor or boss or meeting sales targets, that ethical issues are obscured.

Organizations can experience moral myopia too, as Major League Baseball did during the steroid era. For more than a decade, players got bigger, hit more home runs, and revenues rose dramatically. But the League didn’t see it, even as evidence of steroid use was rampant.

Societies may also suffer moral myopia, as they often have done at the expense of minorities. For instance, the treatment of Native Americans and the enslavement of African-Americans are two examples of moral blindness in the history of the United States.

Moral myopia is closely related to ethical fading. In both cases, people’s perception of reality becomes altered so that ethical issues are indistinct and hidden from view.

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A frame of reference, or point of view, refers to the way we look at a given situation. How a person views that situation can affect her understanding of the facts and influence how she determines right from wrong.

Some frames minimize or even omit the ethical aspects of a decision. For example, studies show that if people are prompted to frame a situation only in terms of money or economic interests, they often leave out ethical considerations.

In a famous study, a day care center having difficulty with parents picking up their children on time started charging a fine for being late. Parents then reframed the issue from an ethical one (“It’s not nice of me to burden the staff in this way”) to a business one (“I can buy the staff’s time by paying this fine”). Late pick-ups increased rather than decreased due to this change in the parents’ frame of reference.

So, by remembering to consider the ethical implications of any situation, we can keep ethics in our frame of reference when making decisions.

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Ethical Fading

Ethical fading occurs when the ethical aspects of a decision disappear from view.

This happens when people focus heavily on some other aspect of a decision, such as profitability or winning. People tend to see what they are looking for, and if they are not looking for an ethical issue, they may miss it altogether.

Psychologist Anne Tenbrunsel and colleagues find that innate psychological tendencies often cause us to engage in self-deception, which blinds us to the ethical components of a decision. For example, euphemisms like “We didn’t bribe anyone… we just ‘greased the wheels,’” help people disguise and overlook their own wrongdoing.

Ethical fading is similar to moral disengagement. Moral disengagement is when people restructure reality in order to make their own actions seem less harmful than they actually are. Both ethical fading and moral disengagement help people minimize the guilt they feel from violating ethical standards.

So, while ethical fading is common, we can try to counteract it by learning to recognize when we put ethical concerns behind other factors in making decisions.

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